Myanmar’s spoiled vote for democracy
Southeast Asia, May 1, 2008
Myanmar‘s spoiled vote for democracy
By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK – On May 10, Myanmar holds a national referendum on a new constitution, a charter which very few of the military-run country’s citizens have actually seen and one which the media and commentators are barred from publicly criticizing in the run-up to the vote. If passed, the charter will move the country into a new political era, though one still firmly controlled by the military.
Myanmar‘s military rulers are leaving little to democratic chance, as they apply restrictions and processes to orchestrate a “yes” vote, which by most international standards will not be considered a free and fair referendum. To be sure, without opinion polls, public sentiment is hard to gauge in Myanmar‘s tightly controlled society.
The vote significantly represents the first time since 1990 general elections, which military-backed candidates resoundingly lost to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), that Myanmar‘s voters will go to the polls. The military famously annulled the 1990 election results and set in slow motion a 14-year process for drafting a new charter aimed at paving the way for new general elections.
There are competing interpretations of what the vote actually means. Some analysts believe both rural and urban voters, frustrated by the government’s severe mismanagement of the country, will overwhelmingly vote “no” as an expression of their discontent.
“They see it as a referendum on the military government; so expect a resounding ‘no’ from them,” said a Western aid worker in reference to rural voters in the country’s main central rice growing area. “It’s the first opportunity since the 1990 election that they have had to express themselves,” she said.
Others view it differently. “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ because I’m tired of the top brass running the country, and doing it very badly,” said a military colonel who wanted to remain anonymous due to concerns over his personal safety. “It’s time to get them out of government and a new constitution is the only sure way of doing that,” he added.
“You don’t need to read the constitution to know its simply conferring power on the military for eternity,” said an elderly Burmese academic who likewise wanted to remain anonymous. “The choice is simple – a vote in favor of adopting the constitution means we want the military to play the leading role in politics and run the county,” he said.
For its part, the military has repeatedly promised the referendum will be transparent, fair and systematic. Political opposition groups and diplomats, meanwhile, have expressed strong concerns that the results could easily be rigged in the military’s favor.
For instance, the regime has already said the results at each polling station will not be announced, even at a provincial level. The only announcement of the vote’s result will come from the military’s equivalent of an electoral commission in the new capital of Naypyidaw. “This is very different from the 1990 elections, when the election results were made public at each local polling station,” said Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and now spokesman for the Burmese government in exile. “It means they will be able to manipulate the results to their own ends.”
Adding to those concerns is the fact that the general public, not to mention the political opposition, will not be allowed to scrutinize the actual vote counting. A senior general recently told military and government officials in Yangon that only the last ten voters before the polls close would be allowed to stay and witness the actual count.
“These last 10 voters who can monitor the counting of the votes by the poll commission members will certainly be members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, who Than Shwe has given the job of running the referendum and getting the result he wants,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
See no evil
Significantly, international election monitors have been banned from overseeing the vote and it is likely that only a few regime-friendly foreign journalists will be given visas to cover the referendum. Foreign monitoring is essential if the referendum is to have any international credibility, the former United Nations rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Pinheiro, told Asia Times Online in an exclusive interview.
“After decades without an election, at least international observers could verify the conditions of the vote,” said Pinheiro, who served in his UN capacity for seven years through April this year. “And the UN has a unit that just deals with elections, but the military government has refused their help.”
“I’ve been following political transitions throughout the world, including Asia for more than 30 years and I am yet to see a successful transition to democracy without a previous phase of liberalism,” he said. “There isn’t the faintest sign of that yet in the case of Myanmar.”
Indeed, state-run newspapers are predictably flush with statements endorsing the new constitution. “To approve the state constitution is a national duty of the entire people, let us all cast a ‘yes’ vote in the national interest.” Meanwhile the local media have been forbidden from reporting the “no” campaign, which has been perpetuated on the Internet and by political opposition groups.
The government has issued orders banning any criticism of the new constitution and violations are punishable with a possible ten-year jail sentence. Those who have dared to defy those orders have come under physical attack by pro-government thugs and at least twenty young NLD members have recently been arrested for wearing T-shirts that read “Vote No”.
The NLD has nonetheless launched a vigorous campaign in opposition to the constitution. “For the people who have the right to vote, we would like to encourage again all voters to go to the polling booths and make an ‘x’ [no] mark without fear,” the NLD urged voters in statement released to the press last week. It nonetheless portrayed the process as a sham. “An intimidating atmosphere for the people is created by physically assaulting some of the members of [the] NLD,” its statement read.
International observers endorse that assessment. “The whole process is surreal – to have a referendum where only those who are in favor of the constitution can campaign,” said Pinheiro in an interview. “A referendum without some basic freedoms – of assembly, political parties and free speech – is a farce. What the Myanmar government calls a process of democratization is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime,” he said.
The new constitution took more than 14 years to draft, a tightly controlled process that excluded the NLD’s participation. The actual constitution was only revealed to the public a few weeks ago and is now on sale at 1,000 kyat per copy – the equivalent of US$1 in a country where more than eight out of 10 families live on less than $2 a day. Even then it’s nearly impossible to find copies, according to Western diplomats who in recent days have scoured the old capital of Yangon in search of the document.
Under the proposed constitution the president must hail from the military, while one-quarter of the parliamentary seats will be nominated by the army chief and key ministries under the military’s control, including the defense and interior portfolios. According to the charter’s text, the army also reserves the right to oust any civilian administration it deems to have jeopardized national security.
NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, will be barred from politics under the charter because she was married to a foreigner, the eminent British academic and scholar of Tibet and Buddhism, Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999. Nonetheless, the military is pitching the passage of the new charter as a step towards multi-party democracy, as laid out in the junta’s seven-stage roadmap to democracy.
The junta’s second in command, General Maung Aye, recently told a parade of new recruits that the constitution would pave the way for democracy. “Comrades, it is the Tatamadaw [military] that is constantly striving for the emergence of a constitution capable of shaping the multi-party democratic system,” he told the army recruits last week.
But even if the junta fixes the referendum’s results in its favor, it will face other major challenges in the run-up to general elections in 2010. That includes the formation of a transition government, which will entail the wholesale sacking of the current military cabinet, many of whom have entrenched business interests protected by their positions. It also in theory must allow new political parties to be formed and freely associate and campaign to contest the 2010 polls.
These steps will all likely be delayed substantially if there is a significant “no” vote at next week’s referendum. While the real vote count may never be made public, top military leaders will know whether or not voters support their envisaged transition to a form of military-led democracy. Depending on how the people vote, a negative result could cause Than Shwe and other top junta officials to yet again redraw their political reform roadmap.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.